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Japan holds a controversial state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

A portrait of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe hangs above the stage during his state funeral in the Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo on Tuesday.
Takashi Aoyama
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
A portrait of Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe hangs above the stage during his state funeral in the Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Updated September 27, 2022 at 8:57 AM ET

TOKYO — Japan held a rare state funeral for its longest-serving prime minister, Shinzo Abe, on Tuesday, despite widespread public opposition to the event.

Roads were closed around the Nippon Budokan Hall, where the event was held. Some 20,000 police were mobilized to prevent the sort of security lapses which allowed Abe's suspected killer to walk behind him at a July 8 campaign event and shoot him twice with a homemade shotgun.

The government estimates that 23,000 mourners lined up to lay flowers at tables in front of pictures of Abe outside the hall. In a sign of the divisions surrounding the commemoration, thousands of others took to the streets in protest. Just down the street from the Budokan, protesters opposed to the state funeral tussled with Abe supporters and police.

Critics objected to the use of $11.5 million worth of taxpayer funds used to pay for the event, as well as Abe's track record of cronyism and corruption scandals, his ties to the Unification Church, and the lack of legal basis for the state funeral.

Some 4,300 guests attended the event, including Vice President Harris, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Abe's widow, Akie, brought her late husband's ashes into the hall, where they were placed on an altar, and politicians spoke Abe's praises. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida applauded Abe's vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and a strengthened alliance with the U.S.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hands the urn of the ashes of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to his widow, Akie Abe, during his state funeral.
Takashi Aoyama / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
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Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hands the urn of the ashes of former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to his widow, Akie Abe, during his state funeral.

As Japan's prime minister from 2006-2007 and 2012-2020, Abe's signature policies included reviving Japan's economy and loosening constitutional restrictions on its military. After stepping down, he continued to wield influence as the head of the ruling party's largest faction.

Abe's suspected assassin, Tetsuya Yamagami, says he targeted Abe because of Abe's ties to the Unification Church. His mother was a church member, and he claimes her donations to the group led to his family's bankruptcy.

Veteran journalist Hiroshi Izumi says that Abe and the ruling party's ties to the Unification Church go back decades and were no secret, and Izumi did not think it would sink Abe or his party.

"His death is a huge loss and a very sad thing. But it has opened a Pandora's box," Izumi says.

Japanese media have reported that nearly half of ruling party lawmakers had ties to the church. The church supplied votes and campaign volunteers, and the politicians gave the church messages of support. Abe himself reportedly decided which party candidates would receive the support.

Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah, founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954. It is viewed by some in Japan as a cult and it has faced numerous lawsuits from former adherents, who claimed it defrauded and tried to control them.

Protesters demonstrate against the state funeral for Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe near the funeral's location on Tuesday.
Yuichi Yamazaki / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Protesters demonstrate against the state funeral for Japan's former prime minister Shinzo Abe near the funeral's location on Tuesday.

One poll shows Japanese who oppose the state funeral outnumber those who support it by a 60% to 30% margin. About a dozen city or town assemblies have passed resolutions calling on the government to call it off. Last week, a man in Tokyo set himself on fire in protest against the state funeral.

Critics argue that there is no legal basis for holding a state funeral for Abe, who was not head of state. Japan's emperor is the head of state, while the prime minister is head of the government.

Kishida argued that the funeral was an appropriate tribute to the nation's longest-serving prime minister and a way to stand firm against the attack on democracy that his killing represented. It was also a way, he argued, to receive the foreign dignitaries who wished to express their condolences.

But critics have not been convinced, and Kishida's approval ratings have plummeted to below 30%, according to one survey.

A further slump in support "could seriously jeopardize Kishida's staying in office," says Jeffrey Hall, an expert on Japanese politics at the Kanda University of International Studies, outside Tokyo. If his ratings decline further, "conceivably there would be pressure on Kishida to resign and have somebody else take over so that they can reset or reboot" the ruling party's agenda.

Then again, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party does not face a major challenge from Japan's weak and divided opposition parties. And Kishida does not have to face voters again until the next elections, in 2025.

From the outset, Kishida's administration has been dominated by what journalist Izumi calls a "monkey dance," in which Abe and Kishida pretended to be political allies, while maneuvering behind the scenes for political advantage over one another.

Izumi argues that Abe's death my finally allow Kishida to emerge from Abe's long shadow, and pursue his own policy goals. "The Abe faction will be dispersed the moment state funeral is over," he predicts.

That could give Kishida a freer hand to tackle Japan's many daunting political and economic challenges, including its stagnant economy, aging population and mounting regional tensions with China, Russia and North Korea.

"Japan is in the most difficult period of the post-war era," Izumi argues. "How he deals with it could decide whether he can survive or not."

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report from Tokyo.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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